Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

I'm a sucker for books about books, for books about readers and writers, booksellers and bookstores.  I'm also making a concerted effort to read more recently published books--I try to pick a book from each month's Book Page and read it before too much time passes.  This month's pick was The Storied Life of A.J.Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin.

I enjoyed this modern-day take on the Silas Marner story in which a crotchety, middle-aged widower is robbed of his treasure only to find love, happiness, and family in its wake.  A.J. grew on me as the story progressed, and I enjoyed reading about the island town in Massachusetts where the story takes place and which is people by a host of interesting people.  My favorite character was actually the police chief, Lambiase, who thinks he doesn't like to read but ends up hosting a book club at the bookstore by midway through the book.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is a book for those of us who love to read--each chapter begins with a quote or two from A.J. about a book, and most of the dialogue has to doing with reading, writing, or selling books.

It's not a surprising book--I figured out most of the plot points a beat or two ahead of the story--but that's okay.  It was a pleasant book, an interesting story about interesting people, and was a great armchair trip to coastal New England.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Daylight Gate

The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson is my first spooky book of the season. It was surprising in some ways, definitely chilling, and made me curious to find out what else Winterson has written.

It's a short book, 224 pages in 4"x5" size page--more of a novella, really--and I read it in a day when I had lots of other stuff to do besides read.

The Daylight Gate is a fictional imagining of the circumstances behind the Lancashire witch trials of 1612.  In the Introduction, Winterson explains that the Trial of the Lancashire Witches is not only the most famous of the English witch trials but also the first to be documented.  A lawyer, Thomas Potts, wrote what he claimed was an eye-witness account, and Winterson uses this document as a spring-board for her story. 

The surprising thing for me about the novel was that the witches in it really seemed to possess some powers.  Most witch trial literature I've been exposed to--for example, The Crucible--focuses on mob hysteria, the power of suggestion and imagination, and the marginal status of most of the accused persons, who are usually women.  The witches in The Daylight Gate are powerful enough to inflict harm on their enemies, consort with familiars, seem able to shift shape, and can interact with the deceased via the Daylight Gate, which is essentially twilight, when the portal between the worlds of the living and that of the dead is open.

I really liked Winterson's style in the book.  The prose is clean, sparse, and blunt but the details are vivid and the pacing is almost mesmerizing.  Perfect for a dark, witchy book.  And it is dark.  Virtually every character is deplorable--the witches, and they're mostly from a single family, and their accusers.  There's some rough stuff in there that is hard to read at times--makes me quite glad that I wasn't alive during the early 1600's in Lancashire!

Winterson also tells her story without making it too black and white.  Despite my assertion that the witches seem to have some magical powers, she is fairly ambiguous as to how much of what is purported as magical is hallucination and how much is real.  I like that--in a book like this, the reader should be thrown off balance and forced to try to piece together where one world blends into another.

From a historical fiction standpoint, I found fascinating the link that the characters, particularly that lawyer Potts, made between witchcraft and Catholicism, that bogeyman of the 17th century.    Winterson did a masterful job of bringing in William Shakespeare as a believable character at this point in the novel.
The Daylight Gate was an interesting, well-written book--bite-sized but satisfying, giving me a lot to think over after I finished reading it, and a few jaw-dropping scenes that curled my toes.

This is the first book in my R.I.P. reading challenge You can read review of other scary books at the R.I.P. review site.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril IX - aka R.I.P 9 Reading Challenge

(Art used for banners is the property of the wonderful Abigail Larson)
The book blogosphere is all abuzz with the 9th R.I. P. challenge hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings. It runs from 1 September through to 31 October and involves reading from the following categories: Mystery, Suspense, Thriller, Dark Fantasy, Gothic, Horror, Supernatural...or anything sufficiently moody that shares a kinship with the above.
Most years I skip this challenge because I figure I have enough on my plate, reading-wise, but I do like spooky (not too spooky, though!) reading in the fall, so I decided to take the plunge and sign up for Peril the First (which is just 4 books to be read by Oct. 31).

Here's my list:

1. Whatever the Tuesday Book Talk group at GoodReads votes on for Oct.  It's looking like 77 Shadow Street, by Dean Koontz.  That's what I voted for since I haven't read any Koontz yet.

2. Touch Not the Cat, by Mary Stewart and/or The House on the Strand, by Daphne du Maurier--it'll be a reread but that's okay.  I read it >40 years ago!

3. The 39 Steps, by John Buchan - I have it, it's a classic, I've been wanting to read it since it started cropping up on everyone's blog last year.  Perfect timing.

4. The Daylight Gate, by Jeanette Winterson - I got this as a Christmas present last year and I want to read it this year.  Here's the Amazon blurb:
After the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, every Catholic conspirator in England fled to a wild, untamed place far from the reach of London law. On Good Friday, 1612, deep in the woods of Pendle Hill, amid baptismal pools and low, thick fog, a gathering of thirteen is interrupted by the local magistrate. Two of their coven have already been imprisoned for witchcraft and are awaiting trial, but those who remain are vouched for by the wealthy and respected Alice Nutter.
I have a lot of books underway already, but most are on fairly long reading schedules so I think I can squeeze in these mostly short (not 800 pages at least) books.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

East of Eden

"It has everything in it I have been able to learn about my craft or profession in all these years." 
 "I think everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this."
- John Steinbeck, about East of Eden

East of Eden was published in 1952--thirteen years after The Grapes of Wrath and fifteen years after Of Mice and Men.  I find that significant because I tend to think of these three books as coming from the same time period, but the quotes above position it as a more mature work, at least from the author's perspective and I have to respect his assessment of his own work and what he was trying to do with it.

I read East of Eden in high school and really enjoyed it--much easier and more interesting than The Grapes of Wrath when I was 15--but hadn't done a reread until last month.  It was interesting what I remembered and what I didn't.

For example, I completely remembered everything about the Trask story line.  At the most basic level, East of Eden is the story of two families in the Salinas valley in California, late 1800's/early 1900's--the Trasks and the Hamiltons.   Samuel Hamilton is Steinbeck's own maternal grandfather who emigrated from Ireland, married a dour woman, sired a flock of children, one of whom is Steinbeck's mother, Olive. The Trask family chronicles begin in Connecticut and theirs is the family that keeps on re-enacting the Biblical Cain and Abel story--Steinbeck helps the reader along by naming his Cain characters with names that begin with C and his Abel characters with names that begin with A.  If you remember nothing else about East of Eden, most readers will remember this..and the forehead scars (ala Harry Potter) that the Cain characters tend to acquire.

So, I remember the Trask family story pretty well.  There's the patriarch, Cyrus--a lying, cheating Civil War veteran who plays favorites among his two sons--lavishing love on his older son, Adam, despite forcing him into the Army, and slighting his younger, troubled son, Charles.  Adam and Charles grapple with brotherhood for years before Adam heads to California with his wife, the infamous Cathy, probably one of the most amoral creatures in literature.  Steinbeck occasionally refers to her as a monster and it is fascinating to watch him create this cold-blooded killer.  I remembered so much about her story from my high-school reading--definitely a memorable character.

After Adam and Cathy get to Salinas and meet Sam Hamilton the stories of the two families intersect and intertwine as Steinbeck pretty much tells the story of the Salinas valley.  Cathy leaves Adam after giving birth to twins--Caleb and Aron--who continue to thrash out the Cain and Abel story, but with the moderating hand of Lee, their Chinese-American housekeeper.  I'm ashamed to say that I do not remember Lee at all from my high-school reading and he is just about my favorite character in the entire book.  He and Sam Hamilton together make the book sing for me.

If East of Eden were only the story of the Trask family it would be formulaic, pedantic, and joyless, but Lee and Sam give it meaning.  It is Lee, the immigrant who tries to assimilate but cannot because mainstream American society cannot see beyond his racial appearance, who provides Adam and Cal with the mental construct of free will.  Caught in a vicious cycle of history repeating itself, Lee leads the Trask family out of the wilderness.  Lee is balance, moderation, compassion, logic, and heart.

I also didn't remember Sam Hamilton at all from my first reading, but what a wonderful, colorful. wise character.  I figured Steinbeck cast Sam as the Biblical Samuel--the prophet, the judge, the leader--makes sense to me.  And then, just to keep the Biblical references flowing, Sam's youngest son is Joe, who is his favorite (an allusion, I'm sure to the guy with the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat).  I even wondered whether Lee was to represent Asian-based religion--he does go to Chinese elders in San Francisco who study Confucius for help at several points.  And then, Cyrus struck me as one of the Titans, who were overthrown by the Greek gods...but perhaps I'm getting carried away.

East of Eden is an incredibly good book.  I enjoyed the pastoral descriptions of the land of Steinbeck (which I'm visiting in two weeks!), the history of the region (Lee's story of his parents' American experience was heartbreaking), the good vs. evil/nature vs. nurture/free will theme, and the marvelous prose by one of American's finest writers. 

There's a 1955 film that stars James Dean as Cal Trask and Julie Harris as Abra, but it really only focuses on the Trask family in the second half of the least according to Wikipedia.  I might watch it someday just to see Dean and Harris in these iconic roles.

There's a 1981 mini-series with Jane Seymour as Cathy/Kate that looks pretty good, but is sure to be dated.

And I found some buzz about a new two-movie version starring Jennifer Lawrence as Cathy/Kate.  She would be amazing in the role.

With a movie or two coming out based on the book, I'll be happy to see East of Eden back on everyone's must-read list!

I almost forgot!  East of Eden is part of my Back to the Classics challenge, for the category Classic Adapted into Movie or TV Series.

It also counts in my Historical Fiction Reading Challenge -- it was published in 1952 but the story takes us through the end of World War I.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Written in My Heart's Own Blood - Outlander book #8

Written in My Heart's Own Blood by Diana Gabaldon was my big book for the summer.  I love the Outlander series, and book eight didn't disappoint.  In fact I enjoyed it much more than it's predecessor, An Echo in the Bone, because it wrapped up comfortably, like the rest of the books in the series, instead of with a cliff-hanger, which was so unsettling.  There's still room for lots more books, should Gabaldon want to continue the story, but it also had a lovely sense of completeness and closure.

One of the things I like about the series is the sense of extended family--it's really the clan idea, but more so. Some of the characters are connected by blood--that's the traditional family or clan--but Jamie and Claire have big hearts and a sense of responsibility to the waifs and the dispossessed whose paths intersect with theirs, and the collection of people who can rightfully say they are part of the Fraser clan, American-style is large and diverse.  Sort of like America itself!

This particular book had the right balance of time travel stuff thrown in too.  In some of the books, the idea of Claire being not of the time she is living sometimes gets lost in the plot.  And there definitely is a lot of plot...and characters...and story threads.  Gabaldon also achieves the right balance of Jamie/Claire with the rest of the threads.  Some of the newer characters are really growing on me, and it was so good to have Jenny's sister Claire back on stage again.  I can't help it, I'm already matchmaking for her and I think Lord John's brother Hal would be an interesting love-interest.  I don't believe he's eligible at the moment, but a lot can happen!

Again, I'm so impressed by the level of detail Gabaldon achieves in a very throw-away style. You never get the feeling with her that she is inserting her research because she did it. I found Claire's treatment of Lord John's eye absolutely fascinating, and I did some reading on the Revolutionary War battles that feature in the story and Gabaldon got the details right and made them relevant.  That is no mean feat.

I do hope there's a book nine in the works.  I think with the Outlander TV series looking so good, the market will be hungry for more.  I sure am.

Speaking of the TV series, did everyone catch Gabaldon in her bit part as Iona McTavish, who attended the gathering?  She talks about it on an Aug 30 post on Facebook.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Austen in August: The Watsons and Emma Watson...Review and Giveaway

The problem with completions of unfinished works is that the reader inevitably compares the completed work to that of the fragment by a hallowed author.  The resultant work inevitably falls short because the author of the completed work seeks to both pay homage to and shine beside the hallowed author. There is no better example of this phenomenon than in Joan Aiken's Emma Watson, acompletion of Jane Austen's The Watsons, which I read for Austen in August.

If Emma Watson wasn't inextricably tied to The Watsons, then I would say it was a reasonably good Regency Romance.  Not on par with a Georgette Heyer, but not bad.  It has a spirited heroine, an unattainable Lord, a nasty Lady, a sympathetic ingénue, a flighty aunt, an unconventional hero, a wonderful red herring, a rattle, a passel of siblings (some rotten, some sound), and a sympathetic parent.  But, it also has a suicide in addition to several other deaths, most of which affect the heroine directly and direly. Did Aiken not read Austen?  Did she not know that other pens may dwell on misery but Austenland harbors no purveyors of gothic misery?  The bit of ivory two inches wide is meant to contain a recognizable world, filled with realistic people who have common human failings but whose stories are worth telling.  The stories in Emma Watson, while somewhat interesting, aren't memorable because they basically are contrived.

The many ways in which Aiken pays homage to Austen range from sweet to cloying.  The Watsons was written between 1803 and 1805, while the Austen family (mother, father, Jane, and Cassandra) were living in Bath after Mr. Austen retired.  She abandoned it after her father died in 1805.  It is assumed that the story itself--that of sisters whose father is ailing and who hasn't enough fortune to enable his daughters to live independently--was too close to home, too painful for Austen to complete. Plus, she didn't have time to write.  She needed to figure out how to live.

Aiken writes the father's death into her story, casting Emma into a den of lions (aka siblings).  She also manages to kill off a lovely friend of Emma's, Anna Blake, echoing the tragic death of Austen's beloved friend and mentor, Anna Lefroy, who died in a riding accident shortly before Mr. Austen's death. I was personally shocked by this fictional death, and even more so by Aiken's cold-hearted murder of Anna's delightful son, Charles, with whom Emma dances in Austen's manuscript (one of the sweetest scenes Austen ever wrote in my 'umble opinion). 

Aiken dips into both Austen's life as well as her published novels for plot points, turns of phrase, and characters. Emma's older brother Robert and his wife Jane bear a remarkable resemblance to John and Fanny Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility.  Admiral Crawford and his nephew Henry (Mansfield Park) rent an estate from the nasty noble family.  Emma Watson is offered the opportunity to dedicate the next volume of her late father's sermons, which she is publishing, to the Prince Regent, and actually meets him!  I confess that my eyes got a definite aerobics workout with all the eye-rolling I indulged in.

Yet...despite all these allusions to Austen, the one thing that Aiken wasn't able to emulate was Austen's wit.  The plot was convoluted and the characters were outrageous, but it just wasn't much fun.  I love the humor in Austen--her sly barbs, her razor sharp remarks that bite through the shrug of recognition, her compassionate understanding that is tinged with grace and goodwill and a smile.  There was none of that in Emma Watson. Truth be told, there was precious little of it in The Watsons.  I like to think that if Austen had lived longer, she might have revisited this story and imbued it with more humor than she could muster when she started it.  

I think the premise of The Watsons is sound, and I think that Emma Watson has all the trappings of an Austen heroine.  I don't think that Aiken did justice to her and I likely won't bother with another of her continuations or completions, but I did enjoy getting to know Austen's fragment again...and I know that she never would have killed off that charming Charles Blake! Grrr!

If you want to see for yourself whether I'm hopelessly prejudiced or not, I am holding a giveaway for my copy of The Watsons and Emma Watson.  I'm happy to send it anywhere in the world.  Simply post a comment below along with your email address.  I will be accepting entries until Friday, August 29 at 8 pm MT.

Final note on The Watsons—I found this fascinating article recently, Jane Austen Used Pins to Edit Her Abandoned Manuscript, The Watsons.  Basically Austen edited this manuscript by pinning strips of paper with new text over the existing words.  The original “cut and paste” editing technique. My first thought was that this was a technique that wouldn’t have occurred to a man, and then I wondered whether she invented and used it more than just for The Watsons.

Giveaway winner: Mary Preston from Australia!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Big Book Summer Challenge - checkpoint

When I signed up for the Big Book Challenge earlier in the summer, I figured that Diana Gabaldon's latest, Written in My Heart's Own Blood, would be the only book that I read this summer that would qualify (i.e., >400 pages).

Boy was I ever wrong!

I'm 633 pages into the 822 pages of Written in My Heart's Own Blood, and loving it.  I'm glad I'm reading it slowly--just one section per week.  This way I have time to enjoy the story and characters and all the details that Gabaldon so painstakingly adds that makes her fictional world seem so real.

I'm also 324 pages into the 601 pages that is John Steinbeck's East of Eden.  Man, how I love this book.  I haven't read it in over 30 years and it is simply wonderful.  I just read the "timshel" section of the book where Lee expounds on the Cain and Abel story and the importance of the phrase "thou mayest."  I can't wait to visit Steinbeck country in September when I go out to visit my daughter in San Francisco.  In addition to Monterey, I'm planning on visiting Salinas and maybe King City when we go to Pinnacles National Park (hoping to see some California Condors)

I read all 576 pages of Donna Tartt's The Secret History, and reviewed it here.  I was half-way through with it before I realized it was an official "big book."

Beatriz Williams' A Hundred Summers qualified as a "big book" with 432 pages.  I reviewed it here.

Daughter of the Forest, by Juliet Marillier, was my first "big book" of the season, clocking in at 560 pages.  I read it in June with the GoodReads TuesBookTalk Read-a-Longs.  I cannot believe I never got around to reviewing it as I did enjoy it and am looking forward to reading the next book in this very interesting series.

Since I'm an English major and my mantra is "you do the math," I got out my calculator to discover that I have read 2525 pages in my Big Book Challenge so far this summer, and that's not counting the books I read that didn't have the page count required.

So yeah, I guess I like to read.

Hope you're all have a wonderful summer, reading what makes you happy, and enjoying life.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Mystery Mile - Margery Allingham

I picked Mystery Mile, by Margery Allingham, as my mystery for the Back to the Classics Challenge with the understanding that this was the first in her Albert Campion series.  It sort of was but not quite.  According to Wikipedia, Albert Campion first appeared as a supporting character in The Crime at Black Dudley (1930) before Allingham let him be the star.  So Mystery Mile is the first of a series of 18 novels in which he is the protagonist.

Mystery Mile, published in 1930, is quite a fun Golden Age detective story, complete with a country house full of charming socialites, kidnappings and disappearances, mob mayhem, witty banter, fast cars, country bumpkins, and young love?  Who could ask for more?  Well, I have to admit that I was pretty ticked off that Albert didn't get the girl in the end, but then I think that must be his cross to bear.

Wikipedia also says that Allingham created Albert Campion as a parody of Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey.  I can sort of see that.  Albert has a whimsical quality to him--he chatters in the slang of the day, but the reader and a few select characters are shown that he has a deadly serious side, a loving heart, and a noble streak that he strives to hide from the world.  I didn't see him so much of a parody as one cut from the same cloth.

I love Lord Peter and after just one book am awfully fond of Albert.  I intend to read more in the series--they're good fun, well-written, clever, and diverting.

I flipped through the book to see what caught my eye enough to make me earmark a page near the beginning of the novel.

One of the American characters, Marlowe, visits Albert at his flat above a London police station and notes how it is furnished:

It was tastefully, even luxuriously, furnished.  There were one two delightful old pieces, a Rembrandt etching over the bureau, a Steinlen cat, a couple of original cartoons, and a lovely little Girtin.
I looked up Steinlen cat on the internet and learned about Théophile Alexandre Steinlenwho in addition to paintings and drawings, also did sculpture on a limited basis, most notably figures of cats that he had great affection for as seen in many of his paintings.  I immediately recognized the cats in the posters and felt a little thrill as I've always liked Steinlen cats without knowing what they were.

I also looked up Girtin and found out about Thomas Girtin (18 February 1775 – 9 November 1802), who was an English painter and etcher. A friend and rival of J. M. W. Turner, Girtin played a key role in establishing watercolor as a reputable art form.

Kirkstall Abbey, Yorkshire (1801)
Just knowing that Albert had a Steinlen cat (probably a sculpture) and a Kirtin watercolor painting in his flat makes me like him all the more!

Monday, August 04, 2014

Austen in August - heads up for review and giveaway

The 3rd annual Austen in August blog event kicked off last Friday, August 1 at Lost Generation Reader.  Thanks to Jenna for hosting what promises to be a really fun reading/blogging experience.

I've signed up to do a review/giveaway on August 26 of The Watsons and Emma Watson: Jane Austen's Unfinished Novel Completed by Joan Aiken.  The giveaway will be open through August 30 and will be available for international as well as U.S. residents.  So mark your calendar so that you can come back and enter the giveaway.  The Watsons is one of Austen's unfinished works and was not published until the 1870s.  Many have speculated as to why Austen never finished it--I've read it a couple of times and read one continuation (by A Lady) but am looking forward to see what Aiken did with it.

I'm also planning to read Jane Austen's First Love, by Syrie James as well as Jane Austen and Names by Maggie Lane.

And I am planning on enjoying reading everyone else's blog posts about my favorite author.

Though it's not part of Austen in August, here's a link to a blog post I did on Mansfield Park when I reread it earlier this year: What is the Matter With Fanny?

Friday, August 01, 2014

The Secret History

Bennington College, Vermont, author Donna Tartt's alma mater

I finished Donna Tartt's The Secret History last week.  What an interesting book.

I blogged about it a bit when I featured it in a First Chapter-First Paragraph, but it really deserves its own post as well although I seem unable to form a coherent theme to write about so I'll just share some random thoughts.

The Secret History reminded me somewhat of A Separate Peace--a similar academic setting but the characters in The Secret History are older (in college not high school), though not necessarily more mature. And there were shades of Lord of the Flies (another book from my sophomore year of high school)--it's an examination of what happens when children (and the young adults in The Secret History, despite their facade of independence are little more than children) are left to run amok.

It's a fairly dark book, with a motley collection of interesting but mostly amoral characters who drink to excess.  Honestly, with the amount of drinking in this book, I was amazed that any of the main characters remained alive by novel's end.  That makes me sound like an old fuddy-duddy, but I was amazed by how much hard liquor these 20-year-olds could consume without suffering from alcohol poisoning.

It seems I can't read a book anymore without it reminding of another book and this book reminded me of lots of books, apparently...but it did also remind me of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier in that the hero commits murder and the reader really wants him to get away with it.

I was surprised by the lackluster ending.  Those of you who have read the book might be surprised to find that I found the ending lackluster, but I had envisioned so much more.  ***SPOILER: I thought that the professor of the classics students, Julian, was more involved in the murder. I thought of him as a catalyst or Dionysus figuring who actively but covertly urged his students to experiment with madness.  In the end, he was just a weak man who really viewed his role as more of a hobby than a responsibility.

I did think this a pretty interesting novel--I didn't fall in love with it, and I'm not sure I would reread it--but it was definitely an interesting premise and well-crafted novel.

Here's a good review of it in The Guardian and the comments following the article are worth reading--they run the gambit from "greatest book ever" to "tedious and shallow."  I'm in the ever-ambiguous "interesting" category.

The is the sixth book in my TBR Pile Challenge for 2014.  Making headway!